This is a guest post by Dominic Bocci, assistant director at the Council on Foreign Relations’ David Rockefeller Studies Program.
Most of the attention paid to the U.S. pivot to Asia has focused on economics and security, primarily through the lens of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S. military’s presence throughout the region. However, policymakers are turning their focus to issues of governance in Asia, understanding that strong support for democracy and human rights is central to U.S. interests abroad. Earlier this year, representatives from the U.S. State Department mentioned both Internet freedom and gay rights in their testimony on Asia policy to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This is an important first step, but as the United States continues to push forward on these issues, it needs to ensure that it recognizes the nuances of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) political life in Asian countries.
The realities of being gay in Southeast and East Asia vary from country to country. Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore still have criminal penalties for same-sex sexual activity, although similar laws are not common in the region. And while an overwhelming majority of those polled in the Philippines say society should accept homosexuality, Indonesians poll drastically in the other direction. Generally speaking, though, LGBT rights are rapidly advancing in Asia, where even gay marriage is being considered. The ministries of justice and health in Vietnam have indicated their support for same-sex marriage, and the Thai government plans to introduce a civil-partnership bill to Parliament, which would extend marriage benefits to many gay couples.
Despite these differences, the Internet is playing an increasingly central role in the advancement of gay rights throughout the region. In China, microblogging services like Sina Weibo and chat programs like QQ not only bring LGBT individuals closer together virtually, but also make them increasingly more visible in public spaces by facilitating meet-ups at local venues. In Vietnam, the web series “My Best Gay Friends” has been viewed over a million times, signaling that perhaps public sentiment regarding homosexuality in the county may be changing, especially among younger generations.
The United States has recognized this emerging trend: in an effort to harness the power of online technologies, USAID launched “Being LGBT in Asia,” in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme. This Asia-focused initiative attempts to pivot policymakers away from treating gay rights as an HIV/AIDS-focused issue to one that places LGBT communities in a larger human rights context. In order to highlight the day-to-day realities of LGBT individuals throughout Southeast and East Asia, the project heavily relies on the participation of regional organizations and local grassroots activists through social media and online networks. Activists with access to the Internet can go online to “Being LGBT in Asia”-dedicated social media platforms to promote local pride marches, share personal stories, as well as report verbal harassment, violence, and discrimination targeted at these communities.
While advocating for LGBT rights in Asia via Internet technologies seems to be an extremely promising avenue for social change, challenges remain. First, left unanswered by such online campaigns are questions regarding whether governments will react to burgeoning online social movements, both among the general population and LGBT communities, with tolerance or regulation. Most recently, Vietnam and Singapore enacted legislation that limits sharing information on social media sites, and political activists have lamented these laws as major steps towards infringing on freedom of speech. Additionally, the Chinese government has started to crack down on those spreading rumors via social media. Whether or not these new Internet regulations will affect—or directly target—the LGBT community remains to be seen. However, should governments consider the increased role that the Internet is playing to foster gay rights as a political threat, it is likely that increased regulation will severely limit the LGBT community’s ability to share information and connect online.
In addition, U.S. policymakers need to be aware that their efforts to mobilize online communities to support LGBT rights run the risk of being perceived as meddling in local affairs. Foreign governments could react by monitoring and censoring these online communities. Should this happen, activists and organizations in Asia may find themselves increasingly behind a firewall, silencing their efforts to publicize human right violations against LGBT communities throughout the region. Nonetheless, the United States has taken a significant step by including gay rights and Internet freedom as one more part of the pivot to Asia, and more broadly by promoting the rights of LGBT individuals abroad.